An employee of TC Transcontinental has been suspended and an investigation was launched by the company after a heckling incident at a printing awards event that saw a comedian leave the stage in tears in the middle of her routine.
"I've been doing standup a long time, I've got thick skin," said Jen Grant, recounting the event. "And I sympathized with women all over the world who put up with stuff because they need that paycheque."
Like the CityNews TV reporter who was making international headlines that same week, Ms. Grant was, as she puts it, sexually harassed at work. Her workplace is the stage, and the heckling – if you can call it that – happened not at some boozy comedy club, but a ritzy event where awards were being handed out to the crème de la crème of the printing industry, after a country-club roast-beef dinner.
In light of the incident, Transcontinental has suspended an employee with pay, pending the outcome of an independent investigation.
"We are very sorry for that situation. This is not in our culture and values for sure," said Sylvain Morissette, chief communications officer with the company.
Ms. Grant, who was born in Ottawa and lives in Toronto, had been hired to deliver a 45-minute set to the Ontario Printing and Imaging Association's (OPIA) Excellence In Print awards night at Toronto's St. George's Golf and Country Club on May 13. Within three minutes of the routine, she says, she was interrupted by a man sitting near the front who said there was a 51-per-cent chance that his buddy would have sex with her, "and I will take the other 49 per cent," she recalled him saying.
"I was shocked," she said. She tried to defuse the situation, but her options were limited. In a comedy club, she would have "unleashed" on him. But this was a corporate gig – with a different set of rules. "I wasn't even supposed to talk about sex and here's this guy telling me they're going to have sex with me. It was bizarre."
She continued. But a few minutes later, in response to a joke she can't recall, the same man said "Oh I bet you do," according to Ms. Grant. She kept pushing through, but then a few minutes later, she heard him say "Oh, the things I would do to you" in a tone she describes as "menacing" and "rapey."
"I was beside myself. I couldn't believe it. I turned my head to the side, I tried to compose myself … I took a sip of my water. And it was probably about 15 seconds, but it felt longer because it was just so awkward. And before I turned my head, I said 'is this really happening?' And a man at the next table [told the heckler] 'you've crossed the line.' "
Ms. Grant says a woman in the male-dominated audience was looking at her sympathetically, and that support gave the veteran comedian the courage to return to the microphone.
"I tried to do my next joke and I couldn't because my voice was all like cry-voice," she said. "And I was like, 'I can't do this,' and I put the mic in the stand and I walked off stage. I was shaking and bawling. And that's never happened in my 16 years, ever."
At first Ms. Grant was apologetic, but as she made her way through the crowd, and people approached her, with support, she realized she had nothing to be sorry for.
"That's my workplace, the stage. There's no HR [department]; it's just me. And … I don't want to cry in front of everybody but it was like my body's way of saying stop letting this abuse happen to you."
Tracey Preston, OPIA's president, couldn't hear the heckler from where she was standing near the door – except for what she calls "a feeble apology" muttered as a visibly upset Ms. Grant was leaving the stage. But as the comedian made her way toward the doors, Ms. Preston followed her out and found out what had happened.
"Had we heard at the first moment of his sort of mutterings, we would have ceased the show and we would have reacted immediately," said Ms. Preston, who added that Ms. Grant handled it so professionally, she didn't realize anything was happening out of the norm from out of earshot until she heard it from the comedian directly. "I was horrified."
Aghast, Ms. Preston walked Ms. Grant to her car, and after the content of the heckling was confirmed by others who had been sitting nearby, she intended to take the man to task. "I came in to tear a strip off whoever it was and I didn't need to do that because there were five other men doing it before I could get there. I thought those words from five other men would be worth way more than my words."
Ms. Grant received repeated apologies from both the OPIA and a high-level Transcontinental executive.
Sexism in the male-dominated comedy world is nothing new to Ms. Grant – she says she's had club owners telling her people have cancelled their reservations because there was a female headliner, and her agent has told her she's been turned down for gigs because the club didn't want a female comic. She fears a ripple effect – that others might think twice before hiring a female for similar types of events, worried about the potential for this kind of incident.
And she's worried about the potential impact on her own career, beyond the horror she felt that night. "In my business, when you're doing a high-end corporate show like that, the other companies might like you and think 'oh we should have her at our Christmas party' and that's a good thing for you," she said. "But when you cry in front of them and don't even finish your set because somebody's making lewd comments, it's probably not going to happen."